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lynnmosher

Show me! Don't tell me!

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An article from agent Steve Laube's site on "show, don't tell" gives this good example...

 

Telling is like giving readers a grocery list. They must memorize facts to absorb your story. For example:

 

She never stood out in a crowd, any crowd. She had bobbed hair the color of dishwater and expressionless brown eyes. Her clothes were neither in nor out of style. So when a blond-haired man who looked like a model asked to sit by her as she drank her morning coffee, she was amazed.

 

Showing means ditching passive voice along with evoking emotions, feelings, and memories, as well as incorporating action. For example:

 

Diedre settled on the coffee-shop sofa she occupied every morning at nine, when she logged in to her computer to show her supervisor he could reach her to solve the latest crisis. Teleworking suited her. It’s not as though anyone paid attention to her when she ventured to the office on Thursdays, anyway.

 

The prospect of dying her dishwater-colored hair never appealed to her, so she could never hope to compete with ebony-haired Zoe or Cheshire, who kept her yellow locks tipped purple. An every-six-weeks bob suited Diedre. Sipping her skinny latte, she studied the brown faux leather shoes she’d picked up on discount and that blended perfectly with the tan jumper she’d scoffed up at a thrift store. What was wrong with melting into the wall? Walls are good. Everyone needs walls.

 

A male voice jarred into her musings. “Do you mind if I sit here?”

 

She jumped, barely saving her coffee from disaster.

 

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

She almost told him to go away but stopped when she observed indigo eyes looking imploringly into hers. Tousled blonde hair topped a chiseled face. She noticed a pressed white shirt floating on a built frame. She gulped. “You didn’t. Scare me, that is.”

 

 

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There’s more to it than that, though, if I understand correctly. For example, you could say, “Bob raced down the stairs, through the hall and out into the street. He jumped into his car and roared away.” You have plenty of action and strong verbs there, but you’re still telling, not showing, because you’re not describing any detail or emotion that would bring the scene to life in your reader’s mind.

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Not necessarily.  Showing not telling isn't just a case of strong action verbs.  It's engaging the senses to draw your reader in as well.  Another thing you have to be wary of is the pacing- to make sure that the pacing suits the action.

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5 hours ago, lynnmosher said:

The prospect of dying her dishwater-colored hair never appealed to her, so she could never hope to compete with ebony-haired Zoe or Cheshire, who kept her yellow locks tipped purple. An every-six-weeks bob suited Diedre. Sipping her skinny latte, she studied the brown faux leather shoes she’d picked up on discount and that blended perfectly with the tan jumper she’d scoffed up at a thrift store. What was wrong with melting into the wall? Walls are good. Everyone needs walls.

 

I get the whole idea of "show don't tell" (meaning, I understand why you say it, I may still struggle to know how to actually WRITE it). But a scene like this just turns my brain into mush. I don't do well with reading descriptions, and really, until maybe 10 years ago (or less), I would skip it and just insert my own images because it slowed down my reading experience to try and understand. "Okay, dishwater-colored hair, that's like mine. Wait, what's ebony again? Oh, duh. Yellow locks tipped purple... give me a minute to think about what that looks like because all of these are much more than just saying "blonde/black hair, etc." and now I feel like we're in an anime" And then my brain is stuck on the use of the word "locks" instead of simply "hair," or some other word. By that point, I'm so bogged down in just one paragraph that either I give up on the story or ignore what was supposed to make a point and I miss some important (or at least interesting) information. I feel like there's a time and place for telling instead of showing, but as Zee said, 

 

2 hours ago, Zee said:

you’re still telling, not showing, because you’re not describing any detail or emotion that would bring the scene to life in your reader’s mind.

 

So you can add some detail, but too much feels very show-offy to me. Plus the longer you take to get to the point of, "she was surprised that a good looking guy sat down and started talking to her" kills the momentum for me. I'm curious if I'm part of a very small minority that feels this way, but reading that example, by the time it mentioned "barely saving the coffee from disaster," I'm more interested in imagining that scene and totally not feeling the whole, "whoa! A cute guy just talked to me?!"

 

For readers like me, simple words can be better (hair vs locks). I know there are lists of, "instead of this word, use one of these synonyms," but there's a point of going overboard. And breaking up highly descriptive scenes by adding a little more action or thoughts helps it to flow. I guess maybe it feels like you're just adding more "telling" when you describe Zoe and Cheshire, because what does this have to do with Diedre? In other words, is she somewhat jealous of them? Does she sometimes wish she had their hair color? Does she often sit and think about her looks, or did someone recently insult her, or once again pick her friend to talk to instead of her? And I don't know what "scoffed up" means, so here's where I'd say to simply use "picked up" or "found."

That's my two cents. :)

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1 hour ago, suspensewriter said:

Showing not telling isn't just a case of strong action verbs.  It's engaging the senses to draw your reader in as well. 

 

Yes. I agree. JA, you have to remember that you are writing for others, to engage them in the story. You aren't writing for yourself. ;)

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39 minutes ago, JosiAtara said:

I get the whole idea of "show don't tell" (meaning, I understand why you say it, I may still struggle to know how to actually WRITE it). But a scene like this just turns my brain into mush. I don't do well with reading descriptions, and really, until maybe 10 years ago (or less), I would skip it and just insert my own images because it slowed down my reading experience to try and understand.

 

I'm with you, Josi!

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The thing about drawing the user in is that once they're in, sometimes you have to give them a little variety.

 

There are times when I have to go all passive voice, because having a sensory or emotive moment takes up WAY too much space in the page.  Sometimes, to connect dots for readers, you need to go from point A to Point B, conveying as much information as possible with a minimum of words.  As illustrated, when you ditch that, you end up with a huge word count, because in order to make stuff like dialog realistic, it has to be immersed in a fair amount of fluff.

 

For example, a book I've written, I have to cover two years worth of experience in a single chapter.  It has to be covered because it is important to the rest of the story.  You can add some of the "immersion" in there, but not the extent illustrated above.

 

I'm an advocate for "show don't tell," but if you listen to some of these people offering writing advice, you'd think that's all there is to writing.

 

You can say, "well, bury some of this information in dialog."  That's a trap too.  I've seen too many TV shows and movies where someone's backstory is ham-handedly thrown in the first five minutes because everything has to be in dialog.  Good dialog is very nuanced.  Good dialog has to sound natural.  And natural dialog only imparts some of what you need to get across, at any given time.

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11 hours ago, suspensewriter said:

Not necessarily.  Showing not telling isn't just a case of strong action verbs.  It's engaging the senses to draw your reader in as well.  Another thing you have to be wary of is the pacing- to make sure that the pacing suits the action.

 

Spot on SW.

 

Zee has a point though - showing involves more than strong verbs - senses and emotion also allow the reader to 'see' what is going on.

 

The problem is what one person may view as passive another may not. For instance one of my all time favorite passages of writing is  the middle section of Virginia Wolf's novel To The Lighthouse. It is called Time Passages.  It describes beautifully how human events (1st WW & the impact on the Ramsey family) are woven within the rhythm of nature through the course of the seasons.  To me Wolf's writing is not passive but many critics nowadays have slammed it because they consider the long narrative passage to be so.   

 

The style of reading for many readers today has been heavily influence by film -  often chucks of writing in a novel is either completely left out because it is descriptive or covered in a single shot by the camera.  

 

 

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I think the second example, while better written, still sneaks in a fair amount of "tell." The passage is more active and the descriptions are sprinkled in as needed. More purple-ly prose than suits my taste, but that's romance for you. 😩

 

Romance2.gif.d0716df9c16b887bcb7b48c4f7570f65.gif

 

   

Edited by Accord64
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I guess this is why there are so many different styles of writing! People see/read things differently and want different things. (Too many "different's" in two sentences.) 

 

We each write the best we can, and our works do not all turn out the same. Some readers will prefer one style, and others, another. And we can all just do what we do.

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My attempts to show rather than tell often end up either sounding like I'm showing off or like some kind of melancholy introspection. 

 

I agree with Josi  on overdoing it. I often read passages thinking "Would you get to the point already." That may be because I'm mostly a non-fiction guy.

 

And Jeff, I've been working on a screenplay and I've been trying hard to cover some exposition in background without having awkward dialogue for it. For example, instead of talking about someone's military service, just showing a medal case and flag in background. Exposition is necessary and sometimes awkward, but I'm trying to make it as unobtrusive as possible. 

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As a short story writer of course I come at everything like a race horse just out the gate, and in that situation there is no room for much telling.

That said, I like to read 1000 page books, and I can trot along if they get a little long winded, might even go along at a slow walk,but never ever try to make up for bad story telling with flowery prose.

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3 hours ago, Accord64 said:

The passage is more active and the descriptions are sprinkled in as needed. More purple-ly prose than suits my taste,

 

Welllllll....I like some purplish prose. Some might call some of my writing/descriptions as colored but I don't use it a lot and don't like to read a lot of it. But I do like some sprinkled in. ;):D

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12 minutes ago, lynnmosher said:

 

Welllllll....I like some purplish prose. Some might call some of my writing/descriptions as colored but I don't use it a lot and don't like to read a lot of it. But I do like some sprinkled in. ;):D

 

Don't mind me, I just like stirring the pot.  😏

 

trouble.gif.9fc9c18d56cd40397a3e53d6ce1f55eb.gif

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Using first person narrators, I watch out for the waffles. "I noticed... I remembered...I felt..." And narrators never describe themselves. They sometimes explain their appearance in dialogue, which seems more natural to me because I almost never look at myself in a mirror or photo.

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There is certain amount of irony in the "show, don't tell" mantra. Just to throw the cat among the pigeons (that was a "show" :) ), did anyone ever notice that, inevitably, when someone wants to address the topic, the first thing they do is tell you to "show me don't tell me"?

 

I'm being a bit facetious here (well maybe more than a bit), but I come from a background (philosophy) where "tell" is pretty important. That being said, "show" is much more common and more palatable in good story writing.

 

But I think it important to note that even every great book will sprinkle in more or less "tell" depending on the needs of the story.

 

"Tell" is not a bad thing, it just needs to be used in a balanced way.  

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